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May 21, 2004

Cochlear implant opens another world for local woman

From: Dunn County News - Menomonie,WI,USA - May 21, 2004

By Deb Anderson, Lifestyles Editor

Birds singing, laughter and the voices of loved ones are sounds most of us take for granted. But for Julie Springer, 45, of Menomonie, they are literally music to her ears.

Diagnosed as hard of hearing at age four, her condition worsened over time and she became profoundly deaf. Hearing aids provided some help until she "maxed out" and the devices were no longer effective.

In October of 2000, she received her first cochlear implant. In July of 2003, she got her second. Her life has now changed in ways she never imagined.

"It's a phenomenal miracle for me," said Springer.

With May as hearing month, Springer wants others to know about help for the hearing impaired. A member of SHHH (Self Help for the Hard of Hearing), Springer said the group has been invaluable to her, something she wished she'd had growing up in LaCrosse.

"All my life I had nothing," said Springer. "Then I found SHHH when we moved to Menomonie three years ago. It's been the best thing for me, finding other people with the same problem of dealing with hearing loss."

On Monday, May 24, at 7 p.m., the public is invited to hear Kathy Allen, a representative for the Cochlear company and a cochlear implant recipient, speak about cochlear implants. SHHH meets at the Center for Independent Living, 2929 Schneider Ave., Menomonie.

Springer's story

Just a toddler when her parents realized something was wrong with her hearing, Springer said visits to as many as eight doctors revealed no problem. Yet, she couldn't hear if turned away from people and she had begun to lip read, taking to it naturally.

"Some don't have the knack for it," said Springer, "but I was so good at it."

Eventually diagnosed with otic nerve damage, Springer said doctors weren't so sure about the cause. But with no hereditary hearing loss in her immediate family, her parents' theorized the hearing loss stemmed from a childhood accident, when at age three their daughter fell and a sand bur went into her nostril and traveled to her sinus where it stayed and festered for a year.

X-rays revealed nothing. An ultimate sneeze expelled copious amounts of infection which Springer's parents believe affected not only their little girls' sinuses but her hearing as well, because of the proximity to the otic nerves.

Mainstreamed for her education, Springer said she wore hearing aids throughout her elementary years, during which time she also received speech therapy. But during her teens, not wanting to be different and suffer ridicule, she caved into peer pressure and refused to wear her hearing aids.

In her early 20s, she began to wear hearing aids again when she married her husband, Steve, who encouraged her to wear them, telling her they were beneficial for her. Springer became a stay-at-home mom to their three children, Sarah, Joshua and Jessi.

As Springer's hearing deteriorated, Sarah, the oldest and yet only age three, became "the phone gal," answering calls and relaying messages. The other kids pitched in, too, and Steve repeated conversations frequently without hesitation.

"Steve is pretty patient," said Julie. "He'd give me information when I couldn't hear, knowing I didn't understand."

Throughout her life, Springer faithfully visited her longtime audiologist. It was when he retired and she found a new one, things began to change. Her new audiologist was up on new technology. That fact, combined with a chance reading of an article about digital hearing aids, inspired Springer to think ahead, maybe even hope for a future with hearing.

She had "maxed out" with her hearing aids in her 30s and was considered profoundly deaf. Yet, while digital hearing aids were the latest technological advancement, her audiologist didn't think they were appropriate for her, but he did think she could benefit from cochlear implants.

Although not wanting to get her hopes up too high, she went through testing to see if she if she met the criteria for cochlear implant surgery. Overjoyed, Springer found she was a "perfect candidate."

"I just bawled," said Springer. "I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

In July of 2000, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Dr. Colin Driscoll performed the Nucleus 24 cochlear implant in Springer's right ear. Just a two-hour procedure, nevertheless, it was very invasive surgery, and for Springer it was not without its complications: slight temporary loss of taste, slight dizziness, loud ringing in the ears and some soreness. (All was back to normal after four months.) After all, she said, she had expected some recovery after a hole was drilled into her skull behind her ear to implant the hair-thin electrode-like piece into the cochlea.

Home the night after surgery, recuperation was slow, but the following month, her cochlear implant was "hooked up." Activation, followed by frequent return trips for "mapping" to customize the implant's operative capabilities led to 28 percent hearing in that ear.

Working with her cochlear implant audiologist, Jon Shallop, Springer began extensive speech therapy, lessons she took in Eau Claire in association with the university.

Admittedly, Springer said she had isolated herself over a ten-year period. The decline in hearing had led her to overcompensate visually and the strain of trying to read lips for information and conversation had caused her to experience headaches and exhaustion.

Ultimately she had withdrawn from group functions where she was overwhelmed. Speech therapy, which she completed last Friday, coupled with her second implant, has brought her back into society and a world she has missed.

With the cochlear implant surgery on her left ear, performed in October of 2003, Springer experienced no complications and a speedy recovery. Hearing in her left ear is at 85 percent.

"Mapping each time it [hearing] gets better," said Springer "But it takes a while for the brain to get used to it [sound]."

Fortunate that her health insurance covered her implant surgeries, Springer also feels lucky that it covered her check-ups. After surgery, she went back three days later, then a month later, followed by three-month, six-month, one-year and annual visits.

With the hearing restored to both ears, Springer now has an overall 90 percent hearing ability, very close to normal. She still has a Cap-Tel telephone for the hearing impaired but is now thrilled to use a cellular phone (or any phone) to speak with Steve when he's on the road driving for Wal-Mart.

"Married for 26 years, it was something we were never able to do," said Springer.

Familiar noises like cars going by and flag pole chains flapping in the breeze are now more than just memories. But winter thuds of snow clumps falling from trees, voices she never heard and birds singing still have Springer in awe. Even squeaking cupboard doors and creaking floor boards are not taken for granted.

"I was missing out on a lot," she said.

Springer said that although the cochlear implant has been done on ages 6 months to 90 years, it may not be possible for all hearing-impaired individuals and is not an "instant cure." The implant offers a "different kind of hearing" but for her, it was worth it and she advises others that "it takes a lot of work on your part."

While moving could be a possibility due to her husband's job, Springer is now more confident with her cochlear implants and knowing support for the hard of hearing is available. She said she plans to join an SHHH chapter wherever they go and if one isn't formed, she'll start one.

For more information on SHHH or the cochlear implant experience, contact Julie Springer at or attend the Monday, May 24, SHHH meeting at 7 p.m.

© 2004 Dunn County News